WASHINGTON ― Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) handed Republicans a political gift at this week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference by equating Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) recent remarks on politicians’ support for Israel with President Donald Trump’s 2017 defense of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some ‘very fine people’ among its company, we must call it out. When someone suggests money drives support for Israel, we must call it out,” Schumer said at the AIPAC event Monday evening.
Comparing Omar’s tweets to Trump’s defense of a 2017 violent rally in which a counter-protester was killed has been the most striking example of something that happened over and over at this year’s AIPAC conference: Politicians couldn’t stop talking about Omar, even when they didn’t mention her by name. Republicans have already spent months claiming the Democratic Party is fostering anti-Semitism and abandoning U.S. ally Israel. What was striking was that, one by one, top Democrats stood up and lent that narrative credibility, playing defense much more than they challenged the GOP’s campaign.
Omar has been accused of promoting anti-Semitic tropes for comments in January that linked support for Israel to political donations and saying this month that money in politics compelled American politicians to have “allegiance” to the country and avoid talking about its problems.
She apologized after the first controversy and following the second, elaborated on her views in The Washington Post, explaining that she, as has every U.S. president for decades, believes Israel has a right to exist in areas historically important to Jews but also must end its occupation of internationally recognized Palestinian territories, and she wants to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
You might not know that, though, if you went off what you heard at AIPAC, where Omar’s fellow Democrats frequently brought up the controversies as though they were still fresh and sought to distance themselves and the party from the congresswoman. On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) condemned the historic trope of “dual loyalty,” which Omar’s critics say she was invoking, and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he would always be willing to call out anti-Semitism in his own community and party. The day before, House grandee Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) condemned the “hard left” for trying to tie pro-Palestinian advocacy to broader liberal activism. And Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who criticized the resolution against hate that Democrats moved forward in response to the outcry against Omar because he felt a specific rebuke of anti-Semitism would have been more appropriate, said the congresswoman’s approach had represented not an attempt to debate policy but an “attack.”
Democrats’ message was clear: We’re not all like Omar, and we’re not planning to abandon a historic U.S. alliance. It’s unclear how it can help. Their response perpetuates a cycle of name-calling and peacocking rather than shifting the conversation to a discussion of facts. There’s simply no evidence for the claim that Democrats have at an institutional level turned on Israel. President Barack Obama crafted the biggest aid package for Israel in U.S. history, members of the party from the leadership level on down frequently visit the country to better understand its concerns and context, and Democrats like Schumer and Deutch are critical to pro-Israel legislation on Capitol Hill.
There is, meanwhile, a clear basis for Democrats and others to question how the U.S.-Israel relationship is functioning. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who alluded to Omar in his own remarks to the AIPAC conference, has strayed further and further from the path long demanded by the U.S. and international law in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. His hard-right government has encouraged settlement growth in areas that the global community classifies as occupied, responded to protests and tactics like stone-throwing with violence that may constitute war crimes, and has sustained a harsh blockade on the tiny, chock-full Gaza Strip. For the Democratic Party ― and anyone concerned with human rights or the rule of law in a longtime U.S. friend ― to urge a change of course is neither novel nor a prelude to abandoning Israel.
Omar on Tuesday pointed to Netanyahu’s new election alliance with a racist party linked to violence ― a move AIPAC condemned ― as a sign of the country’s worrying turn toward often-aggressive hyper-nationalism. “To confront hate and bigotry in all its forms, we must understand that they are all related. We cannot call out one form of hate while turning a blind eye to another,” she wrote on Twitter.
Democratic presidential candidates, almost all of whom publicly said they weren’t attending the AIPAC event, seem to be acknowledging those realities rather than wading into the GOP-designed trap of tripping over themselves to prove they support Israel. An adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) noted that the event was hosting speakers like Netanyahu whose actions show little commitment to the traditional U.S. policy of a two-state solution.
Being frank about how an ally that receives billions in American aid is undermining American goals could be an asset for the party ― and it would definitely be more in line with its claims of supporting fundamental universal rights, diplomacy and a foreign policy accountable to Americans and American interests.
The Democrats who were at the conference did offer some compelling answers to the conservative assault. Menendez slammed the depiction of the party as “Jew-haters,” and Schumer spoke out against those who only accuse their political opponents of anti-Semitism, mentioning the GOP’s repeated use of imagery suggesting Jewish donors are seeking to undermine Trump.
“It’s really important that we be careful not to try and use the U.S.-Israel relationship for political gain,” Deutch said, noting that he hoped for better from Republican colleagues.
But as Trump and Netanyahu seek to bolster one another’s re-election campaigns and the right-wing outrage machine seeks fresh material, the politicization of the U.S.-Israel relationship has clearly already happened. Much of Washington seems not to have caught up yet.